*When Estonians voted on 14 September 2003 on whether to join the EU, some of them had a good reason to remember one of the biggest final obstacles that the European Commission put in the country’s path to the EU. The referendum came on the eve of the moose-hunting season. If the EU had had its way, there would have had no moose shot starting from 2004. Nor would there have been any hunting of bears, wolves, lynx, and beavers.
To Estonians, it is something of a mystery why the EU stuck so long to its (metaphorical) guns. In 1995 two other countries with a Baltic shoreline--Sweden and Finland--joined the EU and managed to win exceptions. Sweden retained the right to hunt bears, while Finns were allowed to hunt bears and also lynx. Sometimes the right was hard-won. Andres Lillemae of the Estonian Hunters Society says that attacks by bears killed one man and left two men in wheelchairs before the EU granted an exception. “The more bears there are, the more they may have contact with people,” he says.
Perhaps it was the relative richness of wild animals in Estonia that made it difficult for EU functionaries to understand the Estonian position. According to Peep Mannil, an official at the Environment Ministry, Estonia has 450-550 brown bears, 600-800 lynx, and 100-150 wolves. This effectively makes Estonia the European modern-day homeland of the brown bear and the lynx. It also has the second-largest ratio of wolves to hunters in the Baltic, behind Latvia. The Baltics and the Carpathians are the only regions in Europe where the wolf is not a complete rarity. All three animals are more frequently sighted in Estonia than in either Finland and Sweden.
Other figures indicate that Estonia has a relatively large number of moose, and wild boar--already common and a popular target for hunters in winter--are becoming more numerous. Increasing production of food crops has encouraged their expansion.
Estonian hunters argue that, without proper control, the populations could grow out of control. They believe that they have shown themselves capable of managing these big, prized animals. With some exceptions, their populations have remained stable.
But what particularly concerned them was the explosion in the relatively humble beaver. Hunted to extinction about a century ago, the beaver was re-introduced to Estonian lakes and rivers in the 1950s. They have bred relatively fast. There are now 16,000 of them, enough--so local press reports have claimed--to destroy thousands of hectares of forest. Only in Latvia is the beaver more common.
“There are so many beavers that they are fighting each other for living space,” says the Hunting Society. “Many of the beavers that are caught have bite marks.” The beaver is an animal with no natural enemies. Culling is therefore all the more important, hunters argue.
Under EU regulations, 25 to 30 wolves can be shot annually, Mannil says. Around 20-30 bears can be killed a year, while the lynx cull will remain at 100 a year. Environmentalists are planning to reserve a few lakes for beavers and direct hunting to areas where the beavers are damaging property and costing money.
The victory has some strings attached. If the number of lynx falls over the next five years, the European Council will pass a qualified majority vote to end Estonia’s exception.
HUNTING AS A WAY OF LIFE
But obscured by these tussles is a broader change in hunting--by northern European standards, Estonia may be a relatively small hunting nation, but hunting is a way of life for a small, 1 percent minority. There is good reason: 51 percent of the country is forested and the forests teem with wildlife.
But the number of hunters has dropped by a quarter over the past two years, to 15,000. As a percentage of the population, hunters are three and a half times less common in Estonia than Denmark and Sweden, and six times rarer than in Finland.
An overall drop in Estonia’s population, and a decline in interest among the young may be factors. So too might money. Hunting the biggest and wildest game can be a relatively expensive past-time. In the mid-1990s, fewer Estonians were able to afford it.
In the mid-1990s, the decline was good for the wolf population, which soared to over 700 in 1994. A massive cull followed, with about 350 being gunned down in 1995.
If fewer and fewer Estonians continue to hunt, could we see a similar swing in the population? If so, hunters from Denmark and Germany--countries with far more hunters but fewer prey--are, it seems, interested in bagging a prize or two. They can already get licenses to shoot in Estonia.